What all biographers need to know – by the experts

 

Maggie Fergusson spoke to leading biographers – including several winners of the Biographers’ Club Exceptional Contribution to Biography award – as well as to publishers and agents to gain their insights into the nature of the genre. The contributors are:

 

Clare Alexander  Sarah Anderson  Anne de Courcy  Caroline Dawnay  Clara Farmer  Helen Fry  Edmund Gordon  Selina Hastings  Bea Hemming  Richard Holmes  Michael Holroyd  Lucy Hughes-Hallett  Julie Kavanagh  Sam Leith  Andrew Lownie  Blake Morrison  Jane Ridley  Philippe Sands  Adam Sisman  Claire Tomalin  Jenny Uglow  Sara Wheeler

Introduction: What is it like being a biographer?

i. What are the essential qualities of a good biographer?
ii. How do you find a good subject?
iii. Do you need an agent? If so, how do you find the right one?
iv. Is it wise to write without a contract? What are the pros and cons of self-publishing?
v. How do you write a good proposal?
vi. How best do you organise your story – cradle to grave, or some other way?
vii. If you are writing about your own family, what are the pitfalls to avoid?
viii. Where do you find the resources – archives etc – that you need?
ix. Are there tricks to managing large amounts of material efficiently?
x. What are the pros and cons of writing about somebody who is still alive?
xi. Where can you find support – both editorial and financial – as you work?

WHAT IS IT LIKE BEING A BIOGRAPHER?

Claire Tomalin, Biographer

Working on a biography means you are obsessed with one person and one period for several years. Another life is bound up with yours and will remain so for the rest of your own life – that at least is my experience. You have gone in too deep to cast them aside. You have looked into the context of their lives in every aspect, examined their family backgrounds, their beliefs, their tastes, their eccentricities, their friends and enemies, their ambitions, achievements and failures, their quirks and mysteries, their betrayals and unhappiness, their political allegiances, their medical histories, their finances, their children, their reputations both in life and posthumous. You will have been surprised by them, maybe disappointed, amused, amazed. Your interest is so strong it can be called a passion.

You will have approached them through archives and libraries, photocopies and microfilms provided by universities and archivists all over the world. You will have studied letters and portraits, wills, newspaper cuttings and caricatures. You will have walked in their footsteps and travelled where they travelled. You will have compiled chronologies, filled file boxes and computer files. You will have talked to a great many people, a few discouraging, most helpful; just occasionally one will have something extraordinary to tell you or be persuaded to show you. You will have setbacks and gloomy times. I cannot remember being bored, although I sometimes felt desperate, asking myself whether I should ever have embarked on so difficult a task. You will have done your best to live mentally in another period and with other sets of values. You will have tested the patience of your family severely.

1. WHAT ARE THE ESSENTIAL QUALITIES OF A GOOD BIOGRAPHER?

Richard Holmes, biographer

I am reminded of Somerset Maugham’s remark about what makes a good novel: “There are only three rules for writing a good novel. Fortunately, no one knows what they are.” Good biographers – James Boswell, Mrs Gaskell, Michael Holroyd or Hermione Lee, for example – are obviously so varied in style, approach and temperament that it would be difficult to define any essential common ground between them. Nonetheless, I think the ability to fall in love with your subject, and out of love again where necessary, is probably fundamental. This implies many strange biographical virtues: obsessive curiosity, passionate empathy, cool advocacy, and the patience of a saint, for a start. It also suggests certain vices to avoid: above all, perhaps, boring your nearest and dearest with endless accounts of your thrilling researches.

Sam Leith, author and literary editor

Patience, accuracy in research, humility before the material, honesty about what isn’t or can’t be known, a sense of what a reader will find interesting… all of these are important. But the first requirement for any biographer, if you ask me, is that they be able to write: be its subject never so interesting, a badly written Life is a drag for any reader. Then they need the imaginative sympathy that allows them to inhabit their subject and his or her world.

The best biographers don’t need affection for their subjects (though it often helps) but they need to be able to see them at once from the inside and out. If you’re imaginatively in tune with your subject, themes and ideas and patterns will emerge from the arid parade of facts and dates – and they will be plausible.

Also, if you’ve imagined yourself into the world properly, you’ll know which details will delight and enlighten and which bore the reader. Get it right, and the reader comes away feeling that they’ve known them.

Bea Hemming, Deputy Publishing Director, Jonathan Cape

All the best biographies are powered by the author’s own curiosity and this has to be most true of biographers. Curiosity will lead biographers to a neglected or misrepresented subject, and will enable them to spend years in his/her company. They also need diplomacy. Navigating the messy business of real lives and their relationships requires tact and sensitivity. Even long-dead subjects leave behind archives that can be closely protected. But I wonder if the most important quality of all might be imagination. All the research in the world can only ever reveal so much. The biographer has to fill in the gaps and imagine her way into a subject’s life. Imagination will also lead him/her to the form that best suits the subject: will it be told in sequence or unfold in snapshots? Perhaps it will be told through just one year (as in James Shapiro’s 1599), or through the words of others (such as Jean Stein’s oral history Edie). Or perhaps they will have to reinvent the biographical form, as Ruth Scurr (John Aubrey), Craig Brown (Ma’am Darling), or Alexander Masters (Stuart: A Life Backwards) have done so daringly and brilliantly.

1. HOW DO YOU FIND A GOOD SUBJECT?

Jenny Uglow, biographer

When I began to write I was daunted by the word “biography” and insisted, with my George Eliot, that it was just “a book about”, not a “life”. I was asked to write about Eliot for Virago Pioneers, and after that scary moment when I said “yes”, I have never hunted for a subject – they have come to me, as people whose work affects me deeply and makes me curious about their creator, whether it be Gaskell’s novels, Hogarth’s prints, Sarah Losh’s extraordinary, pantheistic church or Edward Lear’s limericks. One thing has led to another: writing about Gaskell’s father I discovered the Lunar Men and was astounded that we knew so little about them. In turn, their scientific work made me interested in the Royal Society, the Restoration and Charles II. Charles is the odd one out: otherwise all my subjects are strong characters who use their talent to attack social oppression and prejudice. I’m also fascinated by craft. Writing on Thomas Bewick, for example, combined my love of the north and the natural world, with awe at his astonishing skill, and amusement and sympathy for his fuming radical politics. Finally, a “good subject” has to make me laugh. I need to feel it on my pulse, to know that I would regret abandoning the idea, and then have the courage to take the plunge.

Andrew Lownie, biographer and agent

“The same but different” is often the mantra of commissioning editors. They want subjects that have a track record of selling, but with a twist such as a fresh interpretation, or new material. There are some perennials – the Tudors, the Nazis, Tsar Nicholas II, some of the British royal family – which can be done time and time again because they have been studied at school and feature regularly on television. And keep an eye out for big events coming up in the next four years that might give a subject a hook. Serial deals are not what they used to be but can generate useful profile for a book so think about a subject which might be picked up by newspapers. Equally, look out for subjects with international appeal – translation deals can mount up – and that might be optioned for film.

Female subjects by female authors tend to be easier to sell than men writing about women. All this said, there is no easy formula and a good story, however obscure, which is well told, will always work.

Anne de Courcy, biographer

For biographers, the question of how to find a good subject is an all-pervading concern. And as a veteran of fifteen books I can tell you the problem gets no easier with time.

For anyone lucky enough to have a fraught childhood, there is the misery memoir, still popular. Enjoying a special relationship with an animal can also be a fruitful field (hawks, hedgehogs). Some like to write about well-known people from a different perspective, but in general adding to the flood of Napoleona is counter-productive.

So, first and most obviously, read, read, read. In particular, diaries, journals, letters, memoirs – often a name will leap out at you from a page or some aspect of the past will strike you. Or try a close focus on some period of history, or someone’s life, that particularly interests you. Then research until you feel you can describe it as if it were months rather than years ago – detail is the watchword here. And trawl through archives: there are still great packages of letters that have not been looked at closely and could offer a theme.

Finally, a word of warning. Goodness, however admirable in real life, does not sell. Few want to read about a life spent founding orphanages. Personally, I find passion, power and politics, coupled with a bit of misbehaviour, a good mix.

2. DO YOU NEED AN AGENT? IF SO, HOW DO YOU FIND THE RIGHT ONE?

Clare Alexander, agent

It’s not imperative to have an agent, but it’s better. I would imagine that at least 90% of what gets published through the more recognizable publishers is through agents. Most biography gets sold on proposal, because the author needs the advance, such as it is, to help them to do the research. So it’s usually that the contract is drawn up when the author is far enough into the research to write a proposal, but not write the whole book. An agent knows how a proposal looks presentable to a publisher. They also know where the right editors are, who’s interested in what. And they can help, most importantly, on the actual shape of the proposal – as an agent-editor, in a way, and an agent-spin-doctor.

Then there’s the question of other markets. Most biographers in the UK will be thinking of English subjects, but not all English subjects will sell only in England. So, certainly at my agency, what we’re thinking about is markets, plural. Ideally, we’re not just looking for a UK publisher, but also American, perhaps German, perhaps French; and we’re asking, is this suitable for documentary? The American market is five times the size of the British, and where something can sell in America, the advance is often commensurate.

In terms of how to find an agent, I’d start by looking at the Acknowledgements of books you like, and see which agents are acknowledged. Then, having identified agents who are active in your sort of area, you write a proposal. I get far too many letters from people saying, ‘I’m thinking about writing about Charles I, can we meet for a cup of tea?’ Well, no. The agent needs to be able to see whether the author can write, what their approach is, and so on. But having written your proposal, and got the agent’s interest, meet them and say, ‘How do you see my book, and what do you think it’s about?’ and then see whether what they say sounds anything like what you think you’re doing. It’s important that your agent represent your idea about what you’re about.

I can’t promise that all agents look at all submissions – though I would say that most do. And young agents are looking at submissions to find the things that will make their name. If you really persevere, somebody will, in the end, read your submission. It can take a lot of time, and it can be pretty soul-destroying, but if it’s good enough it will be found.

Jane Ridley, biographer

The relationship with an agent is often a lifelong thing. They don’t just help you to hone your proposal, and read your early chapters. They should be there to support you when things get tough – when, for example, you discover that somebody else is writing the same book as you. Some people say that there’s a trade-off between the agent who will get you the biggest possible advance, and the agent who will give you support and tlc, and I think that’s probably true. Some agents are more author-friendly than others, and some will see their relationships with you as very much a commercial thing. But if you’re lucky there will be some sort of chemistry between you.

Unless you know the publishing world well, I think it’s quite difficult to sell a book to a general mainstream publisher without an agent. But quite a lot of authors, having been daunted by trying to find an agent, decide to go it alone and approach smaller publishers on their own. And that can work very happily.

The Writers and Artists Yearbook remains a very useful resource, listing all the agents, the ways they like to be approached and the kinds of things they are looking for. It’s online – https://www.writersandartists.co.uk/ – and you can subscribe to its listings for £25 per annum. It should help you to find an agent interested in the kind of work you’re doing. Networking is also important – and this is one of the purposes of the Biographers’ Club – there are lots of agents at our parties.

It’s true that a lot of experienced and prominent agents have filled up their lists. But if an agent belongs to a big house, which they mainly do, he or she will be happy to pass on new talent to younger colleagues. So I think it’s a good idea to approach a big company – United Agents, for example.

So with what do you approach them? On the one hand they won’t want a complete manuscript, because they’ll want to help shape a book. A complete manuscript is hard to sell. But the agent needs to know that the person approaching them is capable of writing a good biography. So ideally I think that, as well as a proposal, you’d offer a few complete chapters. One of the best websites for advice on agents is Andrew Lownie’s. His “How to Submit” section – http://www.andrewlownie.co.uk/how_to_submit – is definitely worth looking at for any new author.

4. IS IT WISE TO WRITE WITHOUT A CONTRACT? WHAT ARE THE PROS AND CONS OF SELF-PUBLISHING?

Helen Fry, historian

When Amazon launched its self-publishing platform a few years ago under its company Createspace and subsidiary Kindle Direct Publishing (kdp), it revolutionized possibilities for authors of both fiction and non-fiction. It transformed my own ability to tell stories which could not attract a mainstream publisher at the time, and led to me publishing three major books on the Second World War. It also means that if a book has gone out of print, and rights reverted to the author, then the book can be self-published as a second edition. Whilst it is still beneficial to sign with a mainstream publisher – with all the marketing, profiling, editorial, and support that gives – if this does not happen, then rather than consigning the ‘manuscript’ to the recesses of the computer, it is worth exploring the self-publishing route. It does not mean that a main publisher will not take on that book in the future. My book The M Room: Secret Listeners who Bugged the Nazis (https://amzn.to/2rlpoEY) is a great example of this when it was recently acquired by Yale University Press for publication in 2019.

Traditionally, self-publishing has had a lot of negative baggage attached to it. But that is changing. Self-published works, like any book, needs active marketing and social media profiling. It is the story itself which sells. Its power is not lost; only its mode of transfer changing in the 21st century. Our love of books and story do not change with new technology. In that respect nothing has changed since Shakespeare or Dickens’s day. Whatever the genre, we love a darn good story. Be bold, be brave, step out and give your book a voice in whatever way that is possible in contemporary publishing.

Sarah Anderson, self-published author
Self-publishing is hard work but can be very rewarding. There are different ways of going about it. There are on-line publishers who arrange everything for you – i.e. they find designers, editors, copy editors and printers (that is if you decide that you want to have a print book – you might just be happy with an e-book). There are crowdfunding publishers, such as Unbound, where you have to raise the money before the project goes ahead, but which have the distinct advantage of good distribution (Unbound is distributed by Penguin). This is vital: the way that books get into bookshops through conventional publishers is either through reps who visit the shops or from catalogues. In both instances, it’s the bookseller’s decision. Therefore, unless a bookseller knows about a book, or happens to come across a book by an obscure publisher (whose terms are likely to be dire), the chances of getting into bookshops are fairly remote. And this is where self-publishing is at a disadvantage.

However good your book is, people have got to hear about it. This is where social media becomes so vital, and its important to stress that you should build up interest about your book months before it is published. The percentage of profits that you get on a self-published book is far higher then with the conventional publisher so if your self-published book is a success, you stand to make more money. But it’s tough.

5. HOW DO YOU WRITE A GOOD PROPOSAL?

Clara Farmer, Publishing Director, Chatto & Windus

Whether it’s history, biography, science, travel, art or memoir, I’m always looking for a proposal offering a fresh approach to a familiar subject. That said, I’m often happily surprised by a subject I may not have been aware I was interested in. But the subject matter can be only part of the picture; the “voice” in which the book is delivered needs to be carefully considered: the tone of a proposal must fit with the story a writer wants to tell.

Here are some of the elements any editor would expect to see in a good proposal:

Title/subtitle: give your project a title. Even if it’s not what finally ends up on the cover, a proposal without a title won’t look fully dressed.

Overview: a few paragraphs showing the scope of the book and why it deserves to be brought to readers’ attention.

Sources: do highlight anything that you are consulting for which you have exclusive access. If particular information or news stories are coming to light in the public domain, do flag if your project will be “first to market”.

Illustrations: if you imagine the book having pictures, it’s worth including them in the proposal, either throughout or as a separate attachment. These should be more than decorative, and add to your message. They should not crash the recipient’s computer!

Anticipated length and delivery date: very important, and it’s surprising how often these facts are left out of proposals. If the editor is interested in your project, they will need to check they have room in their schedule, and project costs of printing and selling the book.

Short author biography: include previous titles (and particularly good reviews, sales status if exceptional, and prize listings). Include your social media handles, and number of followers if that seems appropriate.

Chapter breakdown: another essential. This can be fairly short, and broad-brush – editors will understand, that you can’t always anticipate what you will discover – but a chapter plan is reassuring, as it demonstrates that you’ve done the planning work.
Sample chapter or partial chapter: always, always, always include an extended piece of writing. The main proposal is necessarily more of a working document – the sample is the place for the writer to spread their wings, and impress the reader.

Caroline Dawnay, agent and author

An outline needs to inform, to enthuse and to render a publisher confident about the project and the author’s ability to write it. The following headings may be useful.

General introduction: A general essay of maybe one, two or three pages about what the book proposes to be and what its limitations are going to be too. This should be followed by a

Chapter outline, which will show the publisher how you are going to tackle the subject. Not sample text, needed here, but an account of what each chapter will contain, summarised in a paragraph or two.

Format: What is your proposed word length? Does the book require illustrations and if so how many? Should these be black and white or colour? Since a lot of illustrations can render a book unviable, be careful not to overstate your requirement. IF you have special access to illustrations where the reproduction fees will be low or non-existent, it’s worth saying so.

The market: This answers the question, Why does this book need to be written? This is an opportunity to talk about the marketing aspects of the book. Does it connect to an anniversary, is there a particular requirement for the book because of, say, alterations in the school curriculum, what are the things that make the book topical? It’s useful to compare and contrast with other books, and when mentioning their titles, also mention the author, the publisher and the publication date. Listing of comparable or contrasting books will reassure the publisher that you know your market and will obviate the need for the kind of market research that will otherwise be required and will cause a decision to take longer than it otherwise might.

Delivery date

Author note: This needs to answer the question, Why are you the person to write the book? This should be an immodest autobiographical account of your writing career to date, particularly where it connects to the present project. It can be written in the third person if that feels easier. It is worth attaching on separate pages comprehensive lists of best quotations from best reviews of earlier books. If you have had, say, 33,000 hits on Instagram or a large following on Twitter you should probably say so.

Sample text: However good and clear the outline it is useful for the publisher to get a sense of the style and tone of the book you propose so a couple of sample chapters (not the Introduction on its own) are enormously valuable, even if they have to be designated ‘draft’ rather than final text.

6. HOW BEST DO YOU ORGANISE YOUR STORY – CRADLE TO GRAVE, OR SOME OTHER WAY?

Lucy Hughes-Hallett

My book on Gabriele d’Annunzio, The Pike, has four consecutive beginnings. One is a plunge into media res. I start at the most exciting moment of d’Annunzio’s career – with his march on the Croatian city of Fiume, and his making himself its dictator – and then go on to summarise the significance of his life. This approach is now (since the birth-to-death model is so unfashionable as to seem positively eccentric) the commonest one.

I realised, next, that I wanted to give my readers a capsule version of d’Annunzio’s entire tumultuous story before I went any further, so my second beginning was an account of his life told in nineteen different voices, all drawn from contemporary sources.

Opening-chapter number three covers six historically charged months in the early stages of World War I, drawing on d’Annunzio’s diaries to give a minutely detailed impression of his interior life. His thoughts on his twenty-three pet canaries, his tiresome mistress, his beloved greyhounds and his new dressing-gown, are interspersed with his visits to the front and his efforts to find himself a glorious role in the war.

Finally, on page 78, I reach beginning number four, when I go back to the scenes of d’Annunzio’s childhood and start the more or less chronological narrative, thematically organised, that makes up the rest of the book.

In other words, there is no clear best way to structure a biography. You can do it any way you like. You can even do it four ways at once.

7. IF WRITING ABOUT YOUR OWN FAMILY, WHAT ARE THE PITFALLS TO AVOID?

Blake Morrison, novelist, poet, memoirist

When you are writing a draft, you should try not to think about the pitfalls and consequences. It’s vital you don’t feel inhibited. Most writers feel it puts a curse on what they’re attempting to talk about it too quickly.

When I was writing about my father (And When Did You Last See Your Father?) my mother was still alive, so I finished a draft before I showed it to her, and I resolved to abandon it if she didn’t like it. I was well aware that I might need to put it away in a drawer, at least until after my mother’s death. But I had such a compulsion to write it anyway that I was happy to live with the risk it would never see the light of day.

When I showed it to my mother the two big things I worried about were, first, that I dwelt so intimately on the last weeks of my father’s life – his illness, his death. I was fortunate in that my mother was a doctor, and so knew about these sorts of details – gruelling details, bodily decline and so on. It wasn’t upsetting to her. And then I had to write about my father’s relationship with another woman, which rather dominated my childhood. And though I’d changed the woman’s name, and done everything possible to disguise her identity, still it was very upsetting to my mum, and she’d have preferred it not to be there. But she said, “Well, it’s your story, and that’s how you remember it, so be it.”

My mother was very liberal and very gracious. She may have hidden from me some darker feelings about it all – occasionally my sister has hinted at something to that effect – but with me she was affirmative. There was a list of things she wanted me to correct, mainly points of fact. And then there were things I was surprised by – for example she said, “There’s that sentence where you say I was a Catholic. I’d rather you didn’t.” It’s very difficult to predict what people won’t like.

I think everybody writing about their family has to make their own ethical judgments. And in my experience writers are acutely aware of questions about permissibility, about potential upset. Whether you publish and be damned, or meticulously ask everybody’s permission, in the end it’s a matter for individual conscience.

8. WHERE DO YOU FIND THE RESOURCES – ARCHIVES ETC – THAT YOU NEED?

Michael Holroyd, biographer

I wrote biographies to enter other people’s lives – and forget my own. I made use of comedy and sometimes tragedy which I found in letters. I am not an academic – I never went to a university. I wrote by following my subjects through their families and friends. Sometimes I used the Location Register of Twentieth Century English Literary Manuscripts and Letters. When I began an autobiography I wrote to my father and my mother (they had been separated for many years) and asked for them to help me. They both sent me their versions of the truth and I selected what seemed to enter me. Sometimes I felt as if I were writing a new kind of novel.

Jane Ridley, biographer

The make-or-break decision with lots of biographies is whether there is an archive – whether the person you want to write about left enough letters and diaries etc to make a book; and, if there is an archive, the question then is, can you get access to it.

The searching for materials has got so much easier thanks to the internet. There are masses of online catalogues of archives, and also newspapers. In the absence of other archival material, it’s sometimes possible to write a whole book just using newspaper archives and electronic searching. For me, something like the British Library 19th Century Newspaper archive has been a brilliant resource. The London Library’s electronic library is particularly good – you can just use it from home. As well as The Times, JSTOR and the ODNB, which are indispensable, it has a host of databases which are well worth exploring. And then there’s the British Newspaper Archive, which you subscribe to individually rather than through an institution. For about £80 per annum, that gives you access to a huge amount of digitized newspapers – though it’s not all that easy to use.

The other thing that’s got much easier through the internet is accessing digitized archives in other countries – one letter can open up a whole new dimension to somebody’s life.

I think we all need to take courses in using the National Archives. There’s so much material – particularly government and politics related – there. Some files are digitized, so you can see them at home. Otherwise, even if you need to go to Kew to see material, you can order it from home.

9. ARE THERE TRICKS TO MANAGING LARGE AMOUNTS OF MATERIAL EFFICIENTLY?

Philippe Sands, lawyer and family historian

Writing East West Street involved research on the lives of four individuals, two international crimes, one city and a major trial, across a span of forty years. Tens of thousands of pages of documents, in seven different languages, and more than a hundred interviews. The sequel, which I am now writing, includes a single family archive of more than 8000 pages, mostly in German. How to begin to deal with so much material?

If nothing else, being a courtroom lawyer requires one skill: organising, processing, sifting and presenting vast quantities of material! In writing these books I’ve drawn from that experience. I’m pretty systematic in arranging an electronic filing system – everything is digitised, then arranged according to date, subject matter, characters, places and language.

I start by gathering material, reading everything. This requires much translation. For these exercises I work with research assistants, fabulously bright and hard-working students from my law classes.

I prepare a rough chronology. Large and general themes start to emerge. I read everything again. Key points of detail come into clearer view. I start writing, according to a very rough structure. I read everything again, as I have come to understand that you need to read documents and examine photographs repeatedly in order to see things that are immediately knowable.

I complete a full first draft. I read the documents again, printing out the ones that seem most important. Sometimes I can’t find what I am looking for. A decent computer with good serach facilities is almost as indispensable as good research assistants. I revise the first draft, adding in new points of detail gleaned on the latest reading.

Then I send it off to my editor. Who, in the case of East West Street, requires me to produce four different, complete drafts, one a year between 2012 and 2015. At each point the key moments, key documents, key images emerge with greater clarity. The centre(s) of gravity only really emerge toward the end of that process.

It is like running a big case. You start with 10,000 documents, by the end only a 100 really matter, and the case – and the story – might end up turning on just 10.

It is a process of gradual reduction, like making a sauce. It is a process that takes time, that cannot be rushed, and that I love.

Edmund Gordon, biographer

In writing my biography of Angela Carter, I used a programme called Scrivener for ordering my notes; I found it absolutely invaluable. It allows you to store different kinds of material – text, photos, audio and video recordings – in the same place on your computer, and to attach a variety of tags and keywords to each file, so that it’s easy to locate everything relevant when you come to write a given section of your book. Beyond that, I think that the only tricks I discovered were mental ones, really. I’m not sure that all biographers would suggest this approach, but I found it necessary to concentrate on one small part of my research at a time – usually a period of about a year – and to write that bit up before starting to research the next part of the story. That way, the amount of material you’re dealing with never becomes too overwhelming. I think the only other thing is to try not to worry about it all too much: easier said than done, of course, but completism is impossible, and if you’re immersed in the material, as you should be, then you have to trust yourself to retain the most important stuff, and to filter out what isn’t strictly relevant. Then, once you get to the end, you can go back and fact-check everything.

Selina Hastings

I was lucky, soon after I began on my first book, to be taught a system on which I have relied ever since.

Suppose your subject is X, a famous writer, and you have a letter from him to his old friend Y. The letter, dated 23 March 1911, describes X’s arrival in hideous London from Paris, the disgustingness of English food, Mrs Z’s licentious behaviour at a party, which suddenly gave him the idea for a novel (later to become famous as Scandal!).

First and most crucial is chronology: here every single letter, every datable event and reference must be listed in sequence, to record, ideally day by day, what your subject was doing over the years, when, where and with whom.

So, chronology:

1911
23.3 X arrives London from Paris
attends Mrs Z’s party X to Y

Then comes the cross-referencing, under headings such as people, places, subjects, works, by which means, over time, you collect and collate all your sources and references. For example,

People
Mrs Z
licentious behaviour X to Y 23.3.11

Places
London
hideousness of X to Y 23.3.11

Subjects
Food
revolting in England X to Y 23.3.11

Works
Novels
inspiration for Scandal! X to Y 23.3.11

I find this method essential for keeping in order and quickly accessible the ever-growing volume of letters, interviews, books, photographs one accumulates during the course of research.

10. WHAT ARE THE PROS AND CONS OF WRITING ABOUT SOMEBODY WHO IS STILL ALIVE?

Anne de Courcy, biographer

The great pro is that most of those who know your subject are still alive also and, with luck, will talk to you. The most obvious con is that writing means you are bound to offend someone – not least the subject themselves – and possibly hurt the innocent, such as their children. With a subject you don’t know and are never likely to meet – especially if they cannot answer back – your task is easier (possibly one reason why there are so many royal biographies).

For biographies that need to include the subject’s own memories I find the most successful method is a twin-prong approach. First you (well, I) offer a written guarantee not to publish in your subject’s lifetime without that subject’s consent. This should engender the necessary sense of security, and confidence, to allow the subject to chat freely to you. Then try for a letter, signed by the subject and therefore as from him/her, to be sent to his/her friends, asking them to help you.

Then write your biography as though your subject were no longer alive, with no scruples as to what you should or should not say – publication is, after all, up to your subject.

Always, of course, record all interviews, so that you cannot be charged with misquoting, etc. You don’t want to find a libel writ whistling round your ears.

Finally, even with all those safeguards, always expect fallout. From the subject’s point of view, what appears in cold print between hard covers – or in newspaper headlines – often seems quite different from what they confided in you over an evening drink.

Adam Sisman, biographer

I’ve written biographies of two people who were still alive – at least at the beginning of the process. One was Hugh Trevor-Roper, who died before the book was published, the other John le Carré (whose real name is David Cornwell). The advantage of writing about someone who is still alive is obvious: they are still accessible. Not only can they themselves tell you about their lives – although there’s a paradox here, because often a subject doesn’t tell you much that you don’t know already – but also they can point you towards other sources that you might or might not be aware of, close friends, family, former lovers, and indeed the written sources, including their own archives. The disadvantage is that they are there to read what you have written, and maybe to object to it. Biographers and their subjects are locked into a struggle for posterity: biographers control the future, their subjects the past. There’s always an element of shadow boxing between them.

My strong advice to anyone contemplating writing about someone who is still alive is to have an agreement with them beforehand about what can and can’t be said. Before I began work on le Carré, the legal chap at my agents drew up an agreement that we both signed. One big question was whether I could publish in his lifetime. I was insistent about this, as I pointed out, it was perfectly possible that I should predecease him. Most subjects, I think, don’t really mind what happens after they die; but they mind a lot what happens in their lifetime. But sometimes it can be more difficult to deal with a subject’s relations – their widow, or widower, or children – than it would have been to deal with the person themselves. Often those left behind are more sensitive about the reputation of the recently departed than the recently departed himself (or herself) would have been.

Le Carré made three conditions in our agreement – one was that I should let him see the manuscript first, before anybody else. He didn’t have a right of veto over what I’d written, but he had a right to suggest alterations and argue for them. Secondly, I must endeavour to make sure that everything in the book was accurate. And thirdly I should give due consideration to the feelings of living persons. And I think that for a biographer that comes with the territory anyway – biographers can cause real distress to their subject’s families, and of course they should be particularly sensitive to this possibility when the subject is still living, or recently dead.

When I sent the manuscript of my biography to David he responded with a 22-page email listing over 200 numbered points. As you may imagine, my immediate reaction was dismay. But when I started to look through the email in detail, I found that most of his points were constructive, and I could agree to them easily. So there were only a few points on which we argued.

My relations with David were always amicable, so much so that I sometimes had to remind myself that we weren’t really friends. Nor should we have been: a biographer shouldn’t get too matey with his or her subject. As Graham Greene said, you need to retain that splinter of ice in the heart to be a writer, and perhaps most of all to be a biographer.

11. WHERE CAN YOU FIND SUPPORT, BOTH EDITORIAL AND FINANCIAL, AS YOU WORK?

Financial support

a. The Authors’ Foundation, set up in 1984, together with the K. Blundell Trust Awards and the Arthur Welton Trust, are administered by the Society of Authors, and offer grants, this year totalling in excess of £365,000, to authors engaged on a project. Each grant can be between £2,000 and £6,000 (occasionally more). Almost always, the authors receiving these grants will have contracts from British publishers. The grants are made twice a year. For more information, visit www.societyofauthors.org

b. The Biographers’ Club awards an annual prize of £2,000 – the Tony Lothian Prize – for the best proposal for an uncommissioned first biography. For more information, visit www.biographers.club

c. The Royal Society of Literature administers the Giles St Aubyn Awards – three annual awards, one of £10,000 and two of £5,000 – to authors engaged on their first commissioned works of non-fiction. See www.rsliterature.org

d. The Royal Literary Fund Fellowship Scheme is a way of giving established, professional authors – who must have published at least two books – one or two years’ paid employment in higher education institutions while they work on their books. The principal aim of the Fellows’ work is to foster good writing practice across disciplines and media. Visit www.rlf.org.uk

e. Arvon offers week-long residential courses and retreats in its centres in Devon, West Yorkshire and Shropshire. Established authors work closely with writers working, or embarking on, books – www.arvon.org

d. Hawthornden Castle in Midlothian is an international retreat where up to five writers (Fellows) at a time can stay and work, with free board and lodging, for a month. To apply for a Fellowship, contact the Administrator on 0131 440 2180.

Editorial support

Sara Wheeler

I have three trusted readers who comment critically when I have a draft ready. One is a writer himself. The two others are not. It is hard to know in advance who is going to be a good reader – I landed on my three through trial and error. It’s important that readers understand that their role is to be critical, not to praise. The comments one least wants to get concern structure – but in the end they can be the most important.

A reader who is an expert in the field yields another kind of assistance. That person would be looking only for factual errors. I am a generalist (someone has to be one) flitting from subject to subject, so this is especially important for me. For example I have just delivered a typescript about Russia to my publisher, so while we are in the edit, I am getting an academic in the Russian field to read it. I’ve done that with all my books. Of course, you can’t ask someone to do that without offering remuneration, though I have found people generous, and they often ask for payment in kind. One archivist asked for a case of Portuguese red.

Near the end of the process, I read the whole thing out loud to myself. It picks up rhythmical anomalies.

Julie Kavanagh, biographer

For decades now I’ve had an arrangement with the biographer Selina Hastings that suits us both very well. Selina is my ideal reader, and I think I’m hers. We read each other’s work-in-progress, chapter by chapter. Our firm agreement is that we have to be completely honest. We give our verdict in a phone call, talking through the reason for any big change we feel is necessary, and then we post the marked-up chapter back.

An arrangement like this gives you that feeling of having someone to write for. Selina is at work on the life of Sybille Bedford, and recently I was quite tough on the fact that she’d given too much space to the plot of a novel, but I’ve just read her next chapter, and she’s handled the balance perfectly. When I congratulated her, she said that I was “over her shoulder” as she was writing it.

It’s very helpful to have instant feedback. You feel you’ve jumped a hurdle as you complete each chapter, and you want some response. You’d never send a chapter at a time to a publisher or agent, but this ongoing dialogue makes the whole business of writing biography less lonely.

Once a manuscript is finished, I think a writer should then show the text to as many people as possible before sending it to the publisher; different people notice different gaffes. None of us can afford NewYorker-style fact-checkers, so this is a way of saving yourself from blush-making errors once the book’s actually published. You don’t pay these people, but you fulsomely acknowledge them.